Reading The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography, I was irresistibly reminded of a quip attributed to Thomas Carlyle: “A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one.” Though the Dalai Lama has lead one of the most exemplary lives in recent memory, demonstrating uncommon wisdom, patience, and pragmatism in his efforts to publicize Tibet’s plight, Tetsu Saiwai’s paint-by-numbers biography reduces the Dalai Lama from a worldly religious leader to a saintly cipher.
Saiwai’s work takes its inspiration from Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama’s 1991 autobiography, and Kundun, its subsequent adaptation by Martin Scorsese. Like Kundun, The 14th Dalai Lama focuses on the first twenty-odd years of Tenzin Gyatso’s life, from 1937, when he was pronounced the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, to 1959, when he fled to Dharamsala, India, to escape escalating violence between Tibetan nationals and Chinese military forces. Many of the scenes in Saiwai’s book have analogues in Scorsese’s film: we see Tenzin Gyatso correctly identify objects that belonged to his predecessor, thus revealing himself to be the next Dalai Lama; we watch him spend time with Austrian mountaineer (and former SS officer) Heinrich Harrer, a relationship explored in the film Seven Years in Tibet; and we follow him to Beijing, where Chairman Mao exploits the Tibetan leader’s sincerity and youthful naivete for propaganda. Saiwai also offers numerous — if brief — scenes dramatizing the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, showing us both the internal disagreement within the Dalai Lama’s advisory circle and the growing unrest in the streets of Lhasa.
Readers familiar with Scorsese’s film will experience deja vu reading Saiwai’s work, as the manga feels like a shot-by-shot remake. It isn’t, of course, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Saiwai relied too heavily on Scorsese’s movie for guidance on what events to include in the narrative.
The comparison between the film and the manga reveals another drawback to The 14th Dalai Lama: it lacks the visual drama of Kundun. One of the movie’s most arresting aspects was its cinematography; though Scorsese’s crew wasn’t allowed to film in Tibet (most of the movie was shot in Morocco), the art director collaborated with Tibetan cast members to meticulously recreate the costumes, religious ceremonies, and interiors of the Potala Palace. Almost every frame of the movie was saturated in rich color — azure skies, crimson robes, golden objects — an almost painterly affectation that suggested the radiance of a Titian canvas. Saiwai’s unadorned, grayscale artwork, by contrast, seems impoverished; there’s very little detail, even in his depictions of religious rituals, and his efforts to represent Tibet’s rugged terrain barely suggest how dry and unforgiving the landscape can be.
What Kundun and The 14th Dalai Lama share, however, is an uncritical, even devotional, attitude to their subject. In his 1997 review of the film, Roger Ebert contrasted Scorsese’s saintly portrayal of the Dalai Lama in Kundun with his all-too-human depiction of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ:
Kundun is like one of the popularized lives of the saints that Scorsese must have studied as a boy in Catholic grade school. I studied the same lives, which reduced the saints to a series of anecdotes. At the end of a typical episode, the saint says something wise, pointing out the lesson, and his listeners fall back in amazement and gratitude. The saint seems to stand above time, already knowing the answers and the outcome, consciously shaping his life as a series of parables.
In Kundun, there is rarely the sense that a living, breathing and (dare I say?) fallible human inhabits the body of the Dalai Lama. Unlike Scorsese’s portrait of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, this is not a man striving for perfection, but perfection in the shape of a man.
The same could be said for Saiwai’s work: in almost every scene, the Dalai Lama displays preternatural wisdom, sagely counseling those around him. We never see the Dalai Lama in exile, when he faced new challenges to his regime’s authority — moments that might reveal him to be a more human, more canny individual than is suggested by the carefully selected episodes from his early life. I say this not to criticize the Dalai Lama, but to recognize him as a spiritual leader with uncommon insight into the modern condition, as someone who regularly engages members of the scientific community, who intelligently uses mass media to disseminate Buddhist teaching, and who views his faith not as a set of practices to be unquestionably preserved and transmitted to future generations, but as a religion capable of evolving; can you imagine the Pope speculating that his successor might be a woman?
Like his portrayal of the Dalai Lama, Saiwai’s characterization of Chinese-Tibetan relations is devoid of nuance. Saiwai characters’ explain in simple, stark terms what Chinese “modernization” efforts meant for Tibet: devastation of natural resources, and systematic efforts to erradicate the indigenous language, agricultural practices, and religion. (In the introduction to Essential Tibetan Buddhism, Robert Thurman notes that fewer than twenty of the country’s 6,267 monasteries remain open.) Yet nowhere does Saiwai address the long and fraught relationship between China and Tibet — a serious omission, as this history helps explain why China viewed Tibet as part of its territory, and why other nations were reluctant to acknowledge Tibetan sovereignty. These historical facts in no way justify Chinese occupation of Tibet, or diminish the horror of what the Tibetan people have endured; as Thurman observes, nearly 1.3 million have perished under Chinese rule, some while performing hard labor, others for opposing the regime. A story as sad and complex as Tibet’s, however, deserves a more thoughtful treatment than it’s given in Saiwai’s book.
Given the limitations of the text, the best audience for The 14th Dalai Lama are young readers. The book’s directness and sincerity make it an engaging read, while its note of moral outrage over Chinese atrocities may prompt teens to learn more about the 1950 invasion. Readers already familiar with the conflict won’t find much here to enrich their understanding of the man or the region, though they may come away from the manga with a renewed sense of the Dalai Lama’s resilience and courage.
Review copy provided by Penguin Books.